When Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea was recently screened at 7 Dudley Cinema in Venice, it attracted a larger audience than one would expect for a “talking heads” movie. Like audiences who have seen the film at festivals for the last year, they discovered that Salton Sea is a very entertaining documentary about an environment and community that should be more well-known.
The Salton Sea is a body of water located in the Mojave Desert near Palm Springs. It was created in the early 1900s by an engineering blunder, when an attempt to prevent flooding from the Colorado River backfired and sent an overflow of water into a dry inland lake bed over 200 feet below sea level. Its water is more saline than the ocean’s. It is home to literally millions of fish, especially tilapia. For a while, it attracted tourists and sports fishing enthusiasts. But in recent years, the Sea and its “beachside” communities of Salton City and Bombay Beach have fallen on hard times as negative publicity about the Sea’s pollution has kept visitors and settlers away.
In the film, directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer tell the story of the Sea with vivid camera work, vintage promotional film footage and salty interviews (pun intended) with die-hard residents of the Salton Sea area, eccentric and often creative people who live in this environment because they can be whomever they want to be.
We meet residents of Bombay Beach, once a resort town, now a shabby shantytown by the sea’s edge. It’s home mostly to African Americans like Lechon who says she prefers to raise her kid in Bombay Beach as opposed to the cities where “he’d be shot dead within 48 hours.” There are also Hungarian immigrants like the “mayor” of Bombay Beach, “Hunky Daddy,” a beer-guzzling cheerful fellow who sprinkles his conversation with obscenities and praise for America. And there’s an elderly nudist who stands by the highway and waves at all passersby.
The film doesn’t flinch from environmental issues. The Salton Sea is stagnant and everything settles into it, including dead fish (since the fish corpses feed the algae that fish in turn feed on, there is a revolving natural process that produces more fish). Some residents speak of the stench of the Sea from the fish and the algae. One person says that the fish are inedible because of botulism; others say they’ve eaten the fish without consequences. Metzler and Springer zoom their camera in on dozens of news articles about the “dying Sea.” They also examine the attempts to clean up and save the Sea, especially the efforts of the late Sonny Bono, who, when he was elected to Congress, made it a priority to ask for help in saving the Sea. (His widow Mary now holds his seat and is continuing his efforts.)
Chris Metzler answered audience questions after the screening. He said that since he and his partner completed the film, not much new has happened to the Salton Sea. Yes, he has been in the Sea and has eaten the fish. “The water is okay to swim in but it’s very salty. You need to wear goggles.”
He explained that he snagged John Waters to narrate the film through a connection with a friend, and that Waters enjoyed the gig because he found the film chronicled “a very special community.”
And what of the Salton Sea’s future? Metzler noted, “The death knell has been sounded for years. I have some hope – it continues to survive in its own unique way.”